This week was Inclusion Sunday in churches that wished to mark it. My new church, a wonderful place with a growing focus on equality for all, held a service on this theme. But I’ll admit it now – even though I knew the people talking, I nearly didn’t stream the service. I almost went out for a walk instead. The concept of inclusion in churches is one that fills me with dread.

In the end, the people involved were all speaking from lived experience, and they were wonderful. But I’m interested in why the idea of ‘inclusion’ is such a difficult one for me – especially in churches.

Inclusion: Who has the privilege of opening the gates?

I’m a disabled and autistic person. I’ve only recently returned to church, after about eight years when I only attended occasional lunchtime communion in churches that I chose at random. During that time, I was researching for a PhD on disability and churches. I spent all day, every day listening to distressing stories of disabled people’s exclusion from churches. There were positive stories of inclusion, too, but there were far too many of the other kind. These were stories of social injustice. Meanwhile, churches keep talking about inclusion and welcome – opening the gates to disabled people, letting ‘them’ into ‘our’ spaces. But few of them, in my experience, are talking about justice.

I went to ‘Zoom coffee’ after the service. Post-church coffee has never been very accessible to me – so much small talk with people I don’t know! – but Zoom-based coffee is even harder. While I love church being streamed into my home, ‘Zoom church’ often transfers neurotypical ways of communicating into a space where taking part is even more difficult than usual. Suddenly, I’m having to engage in intense eye contact with up to twenty people at once; I’ve been told that I need to sit still in Zoom meetings, so I repress the urge to move; I can’t read body language or social cues over screens; I don’t know when to talk, or how long to talk for… Still, I managed to have a lovely chat with a new friend who was advocating for justice, not just inclusion. Yes, I thought afterwards, having been exhausted to the point of tears by Zoom coffee (through no one’s malicious fault, I hasten to add). Churches need to extend justice to everyone who engages with them, and not just to talk in fluffy terms about inclusion without action. Church members and leaders need to think: Who are we excluding when we insist that they come into our spaces? That’s true whether we’re talking about our neurotypical Zoom coffee designed to be just like coffee in church, our church buildings with steps and poor lighting and no hearing aid loops, or our sermons that speak only to non-disabled people/white people/straight people/cis people. All aspects of church can create conditions of injustice, where we exclude people through buildings, cultures, attitudes and theologies.

In my PhD thesis, I argued that ideas of ‘welcome’ into churches, or ‘inclusion’ in them, don’t go far enough. Inclusion is often about powerful people charitably letting others into their spaces – spaces that they control. They decide who they’re going to open the gates to. The rest of us have to come meekly into spaces that have been designed to meet the needs of the majority – not the needs of the marginalised.

Justice: A Different Way of Thinking

Justice is a different concept. A justice framework would ask why and how we have excluded people, in designing churches only for people who look and act and live like us. It asks us to look at who we’ve barred the way to. Who we’ve kept the church doors closed to. And how we need to redesign church buildings, cultures, attitudes and even theologies, so that they really embrace everyone.

I’ve seen a lot of churches and theologians talk about the Parable of the Banquet as a model for inclusion. But I often wonder whose Banquet table it is. Is this an event where accessibility is considered and all voices are heard? Is there space for wheelchair users to get up to the table? Have autistic people been given a guide in advance to what will happen during the evening’s Banquet? Is there an Easy-Read menu for those with learning disabilities? Are families with disabled children included with the help of Makaton interpreters? What about BSL interpreters for Deaf Banqueters? Are there quiet spaces just outside the banquet hall, for neurodivergent people and those who experience mental distress to find a break from noise? (And that’s only to think about disabled people, not everyone else who could be marginalised during this Banquet…)

After all, the King in the parable did ask for his servants to bring in disabled people to his Banquet. I hope that’s not all he did. If the Banquet is about justice, and not just inclusion, then the King will have gone beyond a simple invitation.

When we talk about including people, are we really ready to open the gates? Or will the gates be torn down by prophetic voices who demand that we re-examine every aspect of the way we do church?

Diversity asks: Who’s in the room?

Equity responds: Who’s trying to get in the room but can’t? Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?

Inclusion asks: Is this environment safe for everyone to feel like they belong?

Justice challenges: Whose safety is being sacrificed and minimized to allow others to be comfortable maintaining dehumanizing views?

Dr D.L. Stewart

Some influences on my thinking about inclusion recently: